Civil legal assistance saves money and helps people escape poverty

Sargent Shriver, President Johnson’s personal choice to lead the War on Poverty, was once asked which anti-poverty program he considered the most important.

“My favorite is Head Start because it was my idea,” he answered. “But I am proudest of Legal Services because I recognized that it had the greatest potential for changing the system under which people’s lives were being exploited.”

Legal services, also known as civil legal aid, has indeed been a potent anti-poverty tool in two ways. First, through individual case work that enables poor people to gain access to the rights and benefits from state and federal service agencies, health care providers, and schools to which they are entitled. Second, through large, class-action lawsuits and advocacy efforts that change laws and governmental policies that adversely―and overwhelmingly―affect poor people.

With the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty in 2014, we have been treated to numerous assessments of the effectiveness of Johnson’s (and Shriver’s) program these past 12 months. It is indisputable that tremendous progress has been made and that much work remains.

To continue progress, civil legal aid must be deployed more broadly in future efforts to combat poverty, and public resources for legal assistance must be increased greatly.

With regard to class action lawsuits, we have seen how civil legal aid has resulted in significant legal victories. In 1970, legal aid attorneys successfully argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in Goldberg v. Kelly that state welfare departments cannot terminate benefits without first providing applicants with a fair hearing. In 1973, California Rural Legal Assistance successfully sued to stop large agricultural operators from requiring migrant farm workers to use short-handled hoes while working in fields. (The short-handled hoes forced workers to stay bent over for long periods of time; field managers required their use because if they saw workers standing up, then they knew that they were resting and not working.  After these hoes were banned, back injuries among farm workers dropped by more than 30 percent. ) More recently, a federal lawsuit by Greater Boston Legal Services resulted in changes in policy by the Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance which had improperly denied benefits to people living with disabilities.

A look at how civil legal aid case work for individuals struggling with homelessness and/or unstable housing, as well as those who are victims of intimate partner violence, is also instructive.

Civil legal aid yields a measurable―and significant―return on investment.

Numerous programs around the country demonstrate that civil legal services can help poor people keep their housing, or negotiate exits from housing that prevent immediate evictions, and ensure a smooth transition to safe, affordable housing. A pilot program launched in 2009 by the Boston Bar Association showed conclusively that poor people fighting eviction notices in housing court in Quincy, Massachusetts fared much better when they were represented by attorneys. Two-thirds of those with full representation kept their housing; only one-third of those who went through housing court without an attorney were able to do the same. Similar results have been found in New York City, San Francisco, and San Mateo County in California.

Meanwhile, a landmark 2003 study published in Contemporary Economic Policy showed that legal services is one of the most effective ways to help women living in poverty escape intimate partner violence. Amy Farmer and Jill Tiefenthaler, researchers at the Carnegie Mellon Census Research Data Center, were intrigued by a U.S. Department of Justice report noting that rates of domestic violence had significantly declined during the 1990s. They analyzed data from the National Crime Victimization Survey and the U.S. Census to tease out the reasons for the improvement. Their conclusion? Access to civil legal services ensured delivery of protective orders; assistance with child custody and support; and divorce and property distribution that victims needed to begin rebuilding their lives. Civil legal assistance was also critical for resolution of domestic violence-related legal disputes around immigration, housing, and public benefits.

While services provided by emergency shelters, counselors, and hotlines are vital in the short-term, Farmer and Tiefenthaler wrote, services provided by civil legal aid “appear to actually present women with real, long-term alternatives to their relationships.” (It is also interesting to note that between 1994 and 2000, the period during which incidents of domestic violence declined, the availability of civil legal services for victims of domestic violence increased 245 percent—from 336 such programs to 1,441).

Despite these clear successes, many people do not understand what civil legal aid is, and surveys regularly find that most Americans erroneously believe that poor people have a right to free counsel in civil cases. Meanwhile, state and federal funding for legal assistance is well below what it needs to be.

This fall, the Boston Bar Association’s Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts released Investing in Justice, a report showing that more than 60 percent of those who are eligible for civil legal aid in Massachusetts and seek services are turned away due to lack of resources. (Full disclosure: I am a member of the task force.)  The Task Force proposed that the Commonwealth’s investment in civil legal aid be increased by $30 million over the next three years to begin to address the unmet need. Currently, the state invests $15 million annually in civil legal aid.

The irony, of course, is that the civil legal aid yields a measurable―and significant―return on investment. Looking at work solely related to housing, public benefits, and domestic violence, three independent economic consulting firms which did analyses for the Task Force found that every dollar spent on civil legal aid in eviction and foreclosure cases saved the state $2.69 on services associated with housing needs such as “emergency shelter, health care, foster care, and law enforcement.” Every dollar spent assisting qualified people to receive federal benefits brings in $5 to the state. Every dollar spent on civil legal aid related to domestic violence is offset by a dollar in medical costs averted due to fewer incidents of assault.

This summer, Philadelphia resident Tianna Gaines-Turner became the first person actually living in poverty to testify before Congressman Paul Ryan’s Congressional hearings on the War on Poverty. In her strong and moving testimony she spoke of the need for increased state and federal funding to end poverty, saying, “People living in poverty―those who were born into it, and those who are down on their luck―want to get out of poverty. We want to create our own safety nets, so we never have to depend on government assistance again.”

Civil legal aid is a powerful tool.  It helps people living in poverty build a foundation of stability so they can create a better future for themselves, their families, and our communities. 




Social Security Disability Insurance: Too Important for Politicking

When Congress reconvened earlier this month, House Republicans wasted no time in attacking the Social Security program. They passed a rules package that includes language to prevent the House of Representatives from taking a commonsense, fiscally responsible action that would prevent a needless, across-the-board benefit cut of almost 20 percent.

This commonsense step is called reallocation, a simple budgetary fix that temporarily changes the share of the payroll tax dedicated to each of the Social Security trust funds—the retirement fund and the disability fund. It’s a common procedure that has helped the Social Security programs deal with temporary shortfalls in both funds 11 times in the past. The current shortfall to Disability Insurance was long-anticipated—a result of changing demographics which include aging baby boomers and women entering the workforce in greater numbers in the 70s and 80s.

Reallocation offers a sure fix that has worked time and again. That’s why leading aging and disability organizations all strongly oppose the new rule – including AARP, the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, Social Security Works, NOSSCR (of which I am the Executive Director) and more. A group of Senators immediately responded by sending a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, urging him to “forcibly reject” the House Republican rule.

 “Holding hostage the Social Security benefits of any American, particularly those of the 9 million Americans with disabilities who are at risk in the coming years, is an untenable proposition.”

Congressional politicking comes at the expense of the millions of Americans who rely on the Social Security Disability program.

The truth is that this Congressional politicking comes at the expense of the millions of Americans who rely on the Social Security Disability program, established over half a century ago to serve as a vital lifeline for those with serious illnesses and disabilities.

One recent story from a beneficiary illustrates clearly how people will be affected if automatic benefit cuts kick in as a result of the House rule. Abby (name changed) was diagnosed with Type I diabetes and started requiring insulin when she was 15 years-old. Even with her health challenges, she graduated from high school and had a successful, decades-long secretarial career.

Although Abby stayed very fit, paid close attention to her diet and managed the disease for 40 years, diabetes began to interfere with her ability to work due to the onset of new complications, including episodes of extreme confusion and passing out due to hypoglycemia. As a result, Abby was no longer able to work and consequently lost her medical insurance. Despite repeated attempts to return to work, she was unable to keep her blood sugar under control.

Abby initially filed for Social Security coverage and was denied. While her case was pending, she had many more blackout episodes and made the hard decision to stop driving for safety reasons. She did not have enough money to pay for a specialist who could get her symptoms under control. She feared passing out in public and having to pay for an ambulance, so she rarely left her home. She passed out on a regular basis, waking up with no recollection of what happened or how long she’d been out.

After two years of waiting, Abby had her Social Security hearing, and, with the help of an experienced Social Security Disability attorney, she was approved for coverage. This life changing decision means that she can now get health coverage, allowing her to see a diabetic specialist. And, she can afford an insulin pump and other supplies she needs on a daily basis.

Abby worked and paid into the Social Security system for decades, and tried to keep working for as long as she could. Her story is one of millions, and shows why we need to protect the program from harmful cuts and politically motivated changes.

Congress needs to enhance and strengthen this vital program for the 11 million individuals who rely on it to help keep them out of poverty. In addition to reallocating money from the retirement and survivors’ trust fund, Congress also needs to fully fund the Social Security Administration. This will alleviate backlogs in processing claims and ensure sufficient funding for program integrity work. People like Abby shouldn’t have to wait two years for basic healthcare.

Social Security has been a hallmark of our nation’s social infrastructure for decades, and its values go well beyond dollars and cents. The program strengthens economic security and dignity for all Americans. It also provides a boost to local economies across the country. We’re calling on the new Congress to take action to preserve and fortify the program – for current and future generations – not by partisan politicking, but through sensible, commonsense reforms to support the American people. Consideration of any changes to this vital system must include the voices and views of people with disabilities as well as all Americans who may need Disability Insurance in the future.




Top 5 Reasons Sen. Alexander’s Draft Education Bill Fails Students

Democrats and Republicans agree Congress should reauthorize the outdated Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). However, Senate Republicans, led by Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN), introduced a draft reauthorization bill earlier this week – titled “Every Child Ready for College or Career Act of 2015” – that would do the opposite. In other words, the needs of the most vulnerable students are least served by Alexander’s bill.

While President Obama pronounced education equality as “the civil rights issue of our time,” Alexander’s proposal turns back the clock and perpetuates existing inequities in education. Here are 5 reasons Alexander’s bill fails disadvantaged students:

1) Opens the door to drastic budget cuts: The bill eliminates the “maintenance of effort” (MOE) provision, which requires districts receiving Title I funding – extra money for schools serving low-income students – to maintain state spending on education at roughly the same level as the previous year. The MOE provision is important because it keeps states honest. It ensures that federal dollars intended to better educate poor children are used for that purpose, instead of displacing general revenue.

2) Diverts funding away from students who need it most: Alexander’s bill allows states to opt out of the current Title I formula and send money out on the basis of the percentage of poor students. The current formula, while problematic for many reasons, targets Title I funding to schools with concentrations of poor students.  Alexander’s proposal would significantly dilute the funding, sending it to schools with higher income populations and limiting the ability of the funds to reach students who need it most.

3) Lowers academic standards: After graduating, students will enter a global economy. But will they be prepared to compete? Alexander’s bill requires states to establish a different (read: lower) set of standards for students who aren’t planning to go to college and abolishes the requirement that standards for students who do intend to go to college be internationally benchmarked. By creating a two-track system, Alexander’s bill will limit the life prospects for students living in poverty and in low-income communities. By lowering standards – and allowing states free reign to set them wherever they want – his bill threatens our nation’s future economic competitiveness. A risk that we can’t afford to take when we are 26th in the world in math.

Alexander’s proposal turns back the clock and perpetuates existing inequities in education.

4) Rolls back school accountability: What happens when schools are consistently and chronically failing students? According to the Alexander bill, not a whole lot.  The bill all but eliminates school accountability. While states must develop an accountability system, there are no requirements for these systems, leaving states free to ignore underperforming students and deny them their best hope of breaking the cycle of poverty and rising to the middle class: a good education.

5) Denies parents vital information about student performance: For parents looking to determine where to send their child to school, the Alexander bill takes away one of the most useful sources of data: comparable student achievement results. The bill provides two options for testing – and both options leave parents in the wilderness. The first option allows states total flexibility to decide when and where to assess student progress. The second option retains annual student assessments but allows them to vary by district. This approach would make it difficult, if not impossible, to meaningfully compare student performance across districts. These provisions would also lead to decreased accountability and allow underperforming students to fly under the radar.

Just as important as what is in Senator Alexander’s bill is what is not. We know that the Title I formula is wildly unjust and unequal, providing more than three times as much per pupil spending for poor students in Wyoming than in neighboring Utah, for example. Yet Alexander’s proposal does nothing to more fairly allocate limited federal funds, leaving the overly complex and not well-targeted formulas in place.  We also know that high-quality early childhood education is one of the greatest resources for improving long-term outcomes for children living in poverty. Quality early childhood programs have been linked with improvements in employment rates and earnings, reduced dependency on public assistance and crime, and even elevated family well-being. Yet Senator Alexander failed to provide any additional investments in early childhood.

So, how could we improve Sen. Alexander’s ESEA reauthorization bill? To start, an effective reauthorization must include college-and career-ready standards, statewide annual assessments that lead to better, fairer, and fewer tests, meaningful statewide accountability systems, measures that make funding practices fair and efficient, and a substantial investment in high-quality early childhood education. These provisions will help ensure that all students have an opportunity for success.




Roe Should Be a Reality for All, Not Just for a Wealthy Few

Today is the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 landmark Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in the U.S. The decision did not simply affirm a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy, it ensured safe services for all women seeking an abortion. Forty-two years later, we no longer have the health crisis of women dying in “back alleys,” but we do face a crisis rooted in economic inequality and women’s struggles to obtain comprehensive reproductive health care, including abortion services. The onslaught of restrictions introduced and passed since 1973 compounds a stark reality for low-income women, women of color, and young women – Roe is not a reality for everyone.

In truth, the promise of Roe existed in both spirit and law for just 2 years. From 1973-1975 abortion was legal and covered by the Medicaid program, which ensured that low-income women had equal access to abortion care. But in 1975, Congress passed the Hyde Amendment that restricted federal dollars from paying for abortion services for poor women. Since then advocates, activists, and legislators alike have struggled to maintain the essence of Roe as state legislatures took the lead on passing laws reminiscent of a pre-Roe era.

For decades reproductive health, rights, and justice advocates have fought to protect the legalization of abortion only to see its access and availability eroded at both the federal and state levels. At the federal level, the Hyde Amendment spawned similar amendments that restrict abortion coverage for military personnel, veterans, federal employees, Peace Corp volunteers, Indian and Native women, and incarcerated women. And in 1992, the Supreme Court issued a divided judgment in Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania vs. Casey that weakened Roe considerably. On the one hand, it upheld key provisions of Roe, namely that states cannot ban abortion before the point of viability of the fetus. But it also ruled that states could regulate abortions to protect the life of the woman or the fetus; medical technology could alter the point of viability; and, no law could impose an undue burden on women to obtain legal abortion services. Moreover, the court found that the 24-hour waiting period laws were not an undue burden. This Supreme Court decision, unfortunately, is the law of the land.

States have been allowed to pass extreme restrictions, thus perpetuating a cycle of oppression for the most vulnerable women.

These federal budget amendments and Supreme Court rulings opened the door for state legislators to incrementally – and creatively – circumvent a woman’s right to determine if and when she will parent and to do so with dignity. Thus far, states have been allowed to pass extreme restrictions, and in doing so perpetuate a cycle of oppression for the most vulnerable women, namely those living in states with high rates of poverty, limited access to preventive services, and other regressive policies such as voter ID laws and right-to-work laws. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 30 states have enacted more than 205 abortion restrictions since 2011.

Texas, the poster child for anti-woman policies, offers proof of just how burdensome accessing abortion services can be for low-income women and families. Since 2013 Texas has cut family planning services and passed a law requiring doctors to have admitting privileges to a hospital within 30 miles, as one provision of the Targeted Regulation Abortion Providers (TRAP) legislation. Since the TRAP legislation passed Texas has gone from having 41 clinics to 17. A federal appeals court will determine this year if the TRAP building code provisions – such as the widening of hallways and increasing airflow – are constitutional. These new laws, combined with an already long list of restrictions, have made Texas one of the most hostile states for women’s health in the nation.  Previous restrictions include mandatory counseling that is biased; a 24-hour waiting period between counseling and having the procedure; mandatory ultrasounds; a prohibition on Medicaid coverage; and a prohibition on medication abortion provided via telemedicine.

Moreover, the cost for low-income women can be devastating. In Texas, one in six women must drive in excess of 200 miles to reach a clinic providing services. The 24-hour waiting period almost guarantees that those arriving from border towns or rural areas will have to pay for a hotel. If she is already a parent, as most women who have abortions are, she may need to pay for childcare too. Those working in low-wage jobs most likely do not have paid leave and could risk losing income or job if they take time off. And the cost of first trimester abortions without insurance coverage is approximately $500. But the longer a woman waits, the higher the costs will be. Research shows that too often women forgo basic needs – like paying rent – in order to obtain this legal medical procedure. Collectively or individually, these factors can force low-income women into worse financial circumstances.

We celebrate Roe as a standard and a vision that we must continue to strive for as a nation. All women, regardless of age, gender, income, socio-economic status, or funding source of insurance should benefit from its promise. And our fight for justice isn’t done until all woman have comprehensive reproductive health care, including the access to abortion services.




Of Stereotypes and Slack Reporting Standards: The Economist’s Claim that Native American Gaming Leads to “Sloth”

In his extensive research, Princeton political scientist Martin Gilens shows how “racial stereotypes have played a central role in generating opposition” to economic security programs in the United States. As Gilens notes, “In particular, the centuries-old stereotype of blacks as lazy remains credible for large numbers of white Americans.” Gilens concludes “racial distortions in the media’s coverage of poverty are largely responsible for public misperceptions of the poor.”

Gilens’ book was published in 1999. In our view, media coverage of poverty has improved since then. This is probably due to increased diversity in the new media and as well as a better understanding—as a result of the work of Gilens, Shanto Iyengar, and others—of how distorted media representations can negatively affect public perception of policy issues.

But an article in this week’s The Economist is a reminder that we haven’t put the bad old days of racially distorted coverage of poverty beyond us. The article claims “cash from casinos makes Native Americans poorer.” According to the author, a particular problem is that tribes distribute part of the revenues directly to members—typically known as “per capita payments”—which encourages “sloth.” The article is accompanied by a photograph of an American Indian man in front of a slot machine, a grin on his face and his arm pumped in the air.

We haven’t put the bad old days of racially distorted coverage of poverty beyond us.

Given research like Gilens’ and the long history of stereotyping American Indians as lazy, The Economist should have been particularly careful to ensure that it had solid evidence to back up its claim. In lieu of such evidence, The Economist relied on a few anecdotes and a single article by a private attorney published in a student-run law review.

We took a closer look at the law review article that The Economist relied on and were not impressed. It purportedly shows that poverty was more likely to increase in certain Pacific Northwest tribes that distributed part of their gambling revenues to members than in those that did not. But there were only seven tribes (out of a total of 17 that the article focused on) that did not distribute gaming revenues directly to members. The total reported decline in poverty among these seven tribes amounted to only 364 people. The study contained no controls for any of the many factors that affect poverty rates, nor did it take into account size differences in the tribes, differences in the size and structure of the per capita payments, or other relevant factors. In short, the study is absolutely useless in terms of providing meaningful evidence to support The Economist’s claim.

Even worse, The Economist failed to mention the existence of rigorous, peer-reviewed research contradicting the article’s thesis. Unlike the single paper cited in the article, this research uses methodologies designed to isolate the causal effects of per capita payments and generally finds that they have positive effects on poverty and other indicators of children’s well-being. For example, research by William Copeland and Elizabeth Costello, both professors at Duke University, uses longitudinal data that tracks both American Indian and non-American Indian children in western North Carolina. After the introduction of a per capita payment for American Indian families, they documented “an overall improvement in the outcomes of the American Indian children while those of the non-[American] Indian children … remained mostly stable.” Strikingly, educational outcomes for American Indian children “converged to that of the non-[American] Indians,” and the arrest rate of American Indian children fell below that of non-American Indians.

Similarly, in research using the same data set published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Costello and her colleagues found that poverty declined among American Indian families after the introduction of per capita payments and also led to improvements in children’s behavioral health.

In addition to research that examines per capita payments, there is a larger body of rigorous research looking at the overall effect of gaming on poverty, employment, and other indicators of well-being. On balance, this research finds positive effects. For example, University of Maryland economists William Evans and Julie Topoleski compared outcomes in tribes that opened casinos with those that did not.  Among tribes that opened casinos, Evans and Topoleski found increases in population and employment, declines in poverty, and some improvements in health. Similarly, Barbara Wolfe and her colleagues found that being a member of a gaming tribe “leads to higher income, fewer risky health behaviors, better physical health, and perhaps increased access to healthy care.”

This isn’t to say that Tribal members and their governing bodies shouldn’t continue to have thoughtful debates about the design of per capita payments or the best balance to strike between direct payments and investments in their social and economic infrastructures. As sovereign governments, they’re already doing that with the benefit of research and the wisdom of their members. Moreover, although you won’t learn it from The Economist, there is a structure in place, under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, that requires tribes to submit plans to Department of Interior before adopting per capita payments.

There is little question that American Indians—both those affiliated with gaming tribes and those who are not—face some of the most severe income, health, and education disparities in our country. If The Economist had wanted to take a serious look at how public policy impacts poverty rates on reservations they would have examined far more pressing topics like the potential benefit of Medicaid expansion for the Indian Health Service, proposals to strengthen the tribal education system, or efforts to address the disproportionately high suicide rate among Native youth. Instead, this story plays into discriminatory stereotypes about American Indians.

We urge The Economist to meet their own journalistic standards and to set the record straight by providing a historically informed discussion of the real issues faced by American Indians today.